Thursday, November 18, 2010

Process vs Results aka Frustration Incorporated

There is a common phrase you hear in the US. It goes something like this: It doesn't matter how it gets done, just that it gets done. My dad used to go further and say, "Do something, even if it's wrong!" There is a very American impulse to DO without much thought to a specific way of doing. The results are what matters.

Well, just as with most everything in Japan, they operate under the exactly opposite paradigm. Here, they might say, don't do it unless you can do it the right way. And there is a right way to do everything. Cultural conditioning runs deep so as children they learn how to enter and leave a room, give/receive a gift, take their shoes off, eat, etc, in very scripted ways. Kanji (Japanese characters) must be written in a specific stroke order. There is a very distinct way to do nearly everything. That is, the Japanese way.

You can see how this can be a frustrating cultural aspect. Here is this week's example of the form over results (and/or logic) phenomenon.

John and I both taught demonstration classes this week. In my case, 20 teachers observed (80 teachers observed John's class). My Japanese teacher of English (JTE) and I planned, practiced and tweaked the lesson for weeks. These things are very scripted. The class went great. There was a meeting immediately after the class. So, all the teachers went to the neighboring classroom and sat down where the seating chart indicated (according to rank and school). Everyone was seated and ready but we sat in awkward silence waiting until the exact minute the meeting was to start. Opening comments (thank yous) were made with accompanying bows. My JTE spoke for a minute (in Japanese) and then I got to speak for a minute, giving my comments about the class (in English - whew!). The rest of the meeting was in Japanese. Everyone in the room was either an English teacher or a native English speaker. I could follow enough to know they were talking about me or the difficulty of some vocabulary for the students, for example. But essentially I was unable to understand the meeting which was about a class I primarily taught. Later I found out they were mostly praising the class. Their criticisms were mostly nit-picky as they had to talk about something for the hour plus allotted meeting time. There were also many awkward (to me) silences during the meeting. They have no sense of filling the empty space to create ease among the group as we do in American culture.

You may be wondering: Why did I have to attend a meeting that I couldn't understand or contribute to? (I attend such meetings weekly!) Why didn't they speak English so everyone could understand? (They feel uncomfortable speaking English.) Why didn't they just start the meeting early since we were all there? (They start on time, never early and never late.)

I was also wondering: Why do they even do these demonstration classes if they are too polite to truly discuss frankly and openly? What is gained other than freaking out the students and making more work for everyone?

The answer is essentially the same as my mother used to give me; because I said so. That is, because that's the Japanese way to do it. They've always done it that way. They are comfortable with it and it works (in the sense that it is the correct form not in regard to the results).

It must be so exhausting to be Japanese and to follow so many unspoken rules all the time. Then again, they are so culturally conditioned that they get satisfaction out of the rules being followed. They don't long to make their own as it's been conditioned out of them. Scary, right?

On the food front, last night we made vegetarian fesenjan, a Persian stew made with eggplant, walnuts and pomegranate juice (which John made from scratch!). We had it with Indian onion flatbread (also from Vegetarian Times). It was delicious! Tasted almost like Mohila at Caspian Cafe used to make back when I worked there in college. It's funny how tastes can transport you like that. And after the oppressive demonstration classes, we were in need of an escape.

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